Never keep the secret

1st December 1995 at 00:00
One recommendation of the Gloucester inquiry into the Cromwell Street case was that all the people involved in child protection should share information. But teachers can be reluctant to speak up if they suspect that a pupil is being abused because they worry that if the fears turn out to be unfounded, an irreversible and damaging official process will already have started.

The Orkney and Cleveland child abuse inquiries will have done nothing to assuage this anxiety. According to Gloucester's director of social services, the public perception of social workers is of child-snatchers and some teachers share this view.

It was largely to counteract this impression that a meeting was arranged earlier this month between two senior police officers and 33 teachers from 29 primary schools in the London borough of Hackney.

Detective Inspector Terry Summers and Detective Sergeant Ian Delbarre from the child-protection team based at Stoke Newington police station said that the most valuable aspect of the meeting was the opportunity to reassure teachers on this point and to clarify the police role in child protection.

"Many teachers who came did not understand that we offer an advice service, that teachers can pick up the phone and just talk through their worries, " said Terry Summers. "Sometimes teachers spot what feels like a minor concern, but they think that to contact the police would turn it into a major one. That is not necessarily the case. In the vast majority of these incidents we end up trying to educate parents, not arrest them."

The other thing to remember, said Ian Delbarre, is that current policy is to remove the abuser, not the abused. The team investigates about 800 child-abuse cases a year.

All local authorities have a written child protection policy, and the Department for Education and Employment publishes guidelines (Circular 1095), but unless they are designated child-protection teachers, finding the time to read these can be a problem and, of course, you can't ask questions of a circular.

One of the most worrying misconceptions, according to Ian Delbarre, is revealed when a child discloses abuse with the proviso that the teacher keeps it a secret. Some teachers, apparently, feel bound by this, like priests. "These teachers tend to be young, they don't want to betray the child's trust." But, he said, abuse should never be a secret, and the teacher should never promise to keep it so.

Ian Delbarre emphasised the importance of the teachers' role: "Teachers see the child every day, they know the child's behaviour, the parents, the whole background. We walk in afterwards and look to them as professionals to provide information, just as a casualty doctor will question the paramedics. Teachers are the front line."

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